Jim Ratts was in fifth grade the day the music died.
"I was just sitting in class waiting for the morning bell to ring," Ratts recalled of the February morning in 1959, speaking to the Indy at his home in Englewood. "And just before it rang, my holding-hands girlfriend and one of her friends walked in and they said that they'd heard it on the radio. I remember it was cold outside."
At that point, Ratts was more moved by the fact that Richie Valens had died in the crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. It took Ratts years to come back to Buddy Holly. Later in the '60s, as he began hearing the artists Holly influenced -- the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, among others -- he began tracing their sound back to the roots Holly established in a few short years before his death at age 23.
Jim and Sallie Ratts play in the band Runaway Express, a Rocky Mountain folk rock band a couple decades strong that, in addition to thriving on their own material, has served as the back-up band for John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Doug Kershaw, and Steve Forbert, and has played on bills with Flatt and Scruggs, John Hartford, Jerry Jeff Walker and a young comedian named Steve Martin.
The band has scaled back in their approach to playing and touring, giving Ratts more time to work in his home studio, to collaborate on side projects such as The Wild Jimbos with Jim Salestrom and the Dirt Band's Jimmy Ibbotson, and to lose himself in finding a use for obscure and archival sound bytes for the "ear movie" collages he makes, such as the two-disc compilations of Radioland and Those Fabulous Sixties.
Memories of West Texas
Ratts went back to the source for Yeah, Buddy!, the first Runaway Express album in seven years, thoroughly researching all things Buddy in the process of making this record. He's talked to everyone from Buddy's brother and wife to Peggy Sue herself, who called Ratts on the morning of our interview to talk with him for 45 minutes about how much she likes the album, her belief that it is the best Buddy tribute album out there, and her assertion that Buddy "would have been tickled by it."
What's unique about this particular interpretation of Buddy's music is its emphasis on Buddy's roots. Buddy's first instrument was a fiddle, and he was making music with his older brothers when most kids were still learning their A,B,C's. He took lessons on the piano, but quickly moved to steel guitar and finally an acoustic guitar. "Once he started playing guitar, he gravitated to these other instruments too," Ratts explained, noting his affinity for mandolin and for the five-string banjo playing of Earl Scruggs, even though Buddy's banjo was a four-string. "He tried desperately to make it sound like the Earl Scruggs kind of playing."
Out in West Texas, the first big influence on Buddy was Hank Williams, but through the radio, he started to pick up Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe and was highly influenced by the bluegrass harmonies and bluegrass rhythms. "It was shortly after that that Buddy started to hear the race music that was coming on the radio from Shreveport and New Orleans," Ratts pointed out. "You know that they were hearing this stuff through static. There's something remarkably mystical and remote but enchanting about something that you hear through static. They'd get it at night and they'd listen to it in their car radio and it blew their minds."
When Elvis came to town, everything changed. "Buddy Holly was able to focus his career more specifically, because somebody gave him the template. Laid the ground work," Ratts explained. "The stage was set for Buddy, because he'd done all of his studying on all of the components that made up Elvis Presley music."
Back to the banjo
To a large extent, Ratts has also studied all the components that made up Buddy Holly music. Ironically, Ratts' first inspiration for the record goes back to the banjo, and the desert landscape of southern Utah.
A year ago last week, Ratts was preparing to play a couple shows with Jimmy Ibbotson and Jon McEuen in Fruita, Colorado, and took some extra time before the shows to travel down to Moab and hit some desert canyons with new band member Ernie Martinez.
"I always felt like those songs would fit in nicely with the right banjo player," Ratts said, noting Buddy's unique approach to rhythm, closer in style to a banjo player than a guitar player. "In the process of our doing this show with Ibbotson and McEuen in Fruita, we went to Moab to show Ernie our terrain. We found ourselves in beautiful southwestern locations overlooking gorgeous canyon depths and we just jammed." They pulled off the road at Dead Horse Point, at Arches, looking for the spot where Ed Abbey's trailer had been, and a shady spot to play some tunes. "Almost every time we would stop and take out our instruments and jam something, it was another Buddy Holly song."
The seeds were planted for a Buddy Holly project, and after Runaway Express played a "Day the Music Died" show at the Little Bear on the anniversary of the plane crash last February, featuring the songs of Richie Valens, the Big Bopper, and 38 Buddy Holly songs, the album was inevitable.
Ratts started out by recording rhythm guitar and mandolin with a guide vocal and bringing in the band bit by bit to add additional layers to the recording. "Ernie came in and played banjo on all this stuff. Then the rhythm section came in, the bass and the full drum kit and a full percussion set. They are interpreting the rhythm tracks for this album relative to how it feels to play along with this acoustic ensemble of a rhythm guitar, a rhythm mandolin, and a banjo. They're interpreting things in that light. A lot of times the banjo is very muted in the mix, it's back there as part of the texture, but in reality the banjo played a big role in making the drummers and the bass player play the way that they did."
Good old boys drinking whiskey and wine
Yeah, Buddy! uses a folk rock base and plenty of bluegrass echoes to capture the unusually durable and flexible nature of Holly's songs, allowing for so much interpretative breadth while always maintaining an essential core.
According to Peggy Sue, it's because Buddy's music is spiritual. "It's been her experience that even on the recording of "Peggy Sue" -- on vinyl and not on CD -- that there's a healing quality about the sounds with resonant vibrations," Ratts reported of his conversation with Peggy Sue. "I think it's the simplicity of his presentation, the dynamics of his ability, and the time in which he was given to create his art. These guys had something fresh to work with. Nobody was telling them what the right way to do it was. So they invented rock and roll.
"I guess more than anything it's the basic simplicity of his music that allowed anybody with three chords and a little ensemble to play Buddy Holly music. There's a universal quality about that," Ratts continued. "But the dynamics of his rhythm concept has a lot to do with it too. The dynamics of him as a songwriter -- you listen to these lyrics, and you know Buddy was just a good old boy. Buddy was not Bob Dylan. He's not going to be a guy that was going to write poetry that would flip out the world. Buddy was able to craft something that was universal and basic in its impact that resonates to youth and humanity in general. There's just something really fundamental about it."
Speaking of good old boys, the pivotal moment that validated the project and brought some closure to it came during one of Ratts' frequent immersions in archival recorded material. A local friend, Nile Southern, brought a box of reel-to-reel tapes to Ratts' studio to catalogue the material and transfer it to CD. The tapes were from Nile's father, Terry Southern, documenting living room sessions with Lenny Bruce, for example. (Southern was a writer and pop icon of the '60s, best known for his screenplay work with Stanley Kubrik on Dr. Strangelove and his contributions to Easy Rider.)
In what Ratts calls a moment of "serendipitous synchronicity," they dropped an obliquely labeled cassette tape in the machine. It was titled "Jack Len" and proved to be an early '70s impromptu gathering at Southern's place, the featured guest being a guitar-toting John "Jack Len" Lennon -- breaking down the English folk roots of Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and passing the guitar to Donovan who sang "The Rivers of Babylon." The ambience is complete with pots crashing in the background, a kid on rollerskates navigating the doorsill speed bump between wood-floored rooms, and a television in the background prompting Lennon -- fresh from his immigration interview with Howard Cosell -- to offer his own Cosell impression.
For period authenticity, a dazed-voiced woman says to Southern, "Terry, that grass was so strong this afternoon. Is that Thai? I'm so stoned. What is it?" "It's Colombian," Southern replies. "From Columbia."
Midway through the 60-minute cassette, Mick Jagger materializes and joins Lennon in fighting their way through oldies ranging from "The Rock Island Line" and "You're So Square" to "Under My Thumb" and "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window." John and Mick compare Brian Jones stories, citing his xylophone riff on "Under My Thumb" and his wandering into a Beatles session and adding horns to "You Know My Name, Look Up the Number." "Did you have an uncle who played spoons?" Mick asks John after beating out rhythm on his knees. "Charlie can play spoons," Mick offers, referring to bandmate Charlie Watts.
At one point Jagger says four words that changed the complexion of the early '70s jam session and blew Ratts away 30 years later. "Peggy Sue got married," says Jagger, and the room breaks into a nine-minute medley of Buddy Holly songs complete with Mick's knee slap percussion, John calling out chord changes, and the two of them challenging each other on falsetto harmonies. If Ratts had any doubts about the soundness of the project, this cosmic message from the "king poets," as Southern called them, was like a royal stamp of approval. Ratts got permission from Nile Southern to use three barely recognizable bytes from the Jack Len tape to help create the transitional material that gives Yeah, Buddy! its collage quality, blending it in like the mythical static on Buddy's old car radio.
Ratts is conscious of the gap in perspective between a teenaged Buddy Holly writing and singing these songs for an audience of teenagers and Ratts's own interpretation 40 years later at age 52. "I feel like Runaway Express are aging children of the Rocky Mountain music scene that are singing teenage songs envisioned through the multi-colored lenses of four decades of music since Buddy Holly's death," he said. "We're singing kids' music, but we're singing it from the perspective of players who have bought into all these different music scenes that have been handed to us through the years."
On one hand, the album seamlessly reflects the bluegrass and hillbilly roots instrumentation that influenced Holly. But on the other hand, Ratts brings everything from the Beatles to Hendrix, from the Byrds and the Lovin' Spoonful to Rick Nelson, the Eagles, Bob Dylan and even Jack Len. "We're buying into all this stuff, and it's all stacking up," Ratts concluded. "It's all stuff that's there in the reservoir of our musical inspirations."
It's a reservoir that's been drawn on for over 40 years, and Yeah, Buddy! offers one more assurance that it will not fade away.